All aboard for high speed rail!

They’re called ICE trains. But they scorch the rails, whisking passengers smoothy and comfortably across the length and breadth of Germany at top speeds over 200 m.p.h.

Recently about 30 people gathered for an NCFO-SEIU 32BJ-sponsored rally in Louisville to press Congress to fully fund a national high-speed rail network which would include the Falls City.

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, dubbed the “Build Back Better bill,” would enable the country’s rail systems “to offer safe, reliable, efficient, and climate-friendly alternatives for moving people and freight,” according to the White House. “However, unlike highways and transit, rail lacks a multi-year funding stream to address deferred maintenance, enhance existing corridors, and build new lines in high-potential locations. There are currently projects just waiting to be funded that will give millions more Americans reliable and fast inter-city train service. President Biden is calling on Congress to invest $80 billion to address  Amtrak’s repair backlog; modernize the high traffic Northeast Corridor; improve existing corridors and connect new city pairs; and enhance grant and loan programs that support passenger and freight rail safety, efficiency, and electrification.”

“The Build Back Better bill is the best chance in a generation to start catching up to the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to high-speed rail,” said Ezra Silk, political director of the U.S. High Speed Rail Coalition. “As Chair of the House Budget Committee, Rep. [John] Yarmuth [D-Louisville] is part of the small group of decision-makers determining the size of the bill and whether it will have room to robustly fund high-speed rail.”

Rally organizers urged all present to phone their senators and representatives at (toll free) 1-877-206-1846 and tell them to support the infrastructure bill with its high speed rail provision.

Kentucky State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan, one of the featured speakers, said because Kentucky is centrally located for interstate travel–north, south, east and west–“we need high speed rail.”

Londrigan added that high speed rail, or HSR for short, “is the next phase of the transportation infrastructure [improvement] that this country needs to keep pace with all these other countries we are competing with.”

Many of those countries are in western Europe and boast extensive, state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly, electrified HSR networks.

Seeing is believing. Ask just about any first-time American visitor to Europe who has traveled on a high-speed train like a German ICE (InterCity Express), a French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or “High Speed Train.”), an Italian Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) or a Spanish Ave.

I’ve yet to meet any fellow American who’s not been astonished at the experience. “Why can’t we have trains like those?” they ask, more often than not.

Anyway, when my wife, Melinda, and I – retired teachers — married 42 years ago, we decided we would live in a small house, drive used cars (American and union-made) and, as her German professor at Murray State put it, “invest in airline tickets.”

She jokes that half the reason I enjoy traveling in Europe is getting to ride high speed trains. Click hereherehere and here to see why even as a senior citizen, I’m as awestruck as a kid at the high speed trains, whose ancestor is the storied Japanese Tōkaidō Shinkansen or “Bullet Train” that opened the era of HSR travel in the 1960s.

On the campaign trail last year, Biden said he was all aboard for “sparking the second great railroad revolution.” He promised to ensure that the U.S. “has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world – for both passengers and freight.”

Soon after Biden was elected, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association issued a “5-Point High Speed Rail Plan.” It includes an HSR link to be constructed between Louisville and Nashville, presumably somewhere along the historic L&N line which was built in the 1850s.

Constructing, maintaining and operating a national high speed rail system would generate millions of jobs–many of them union jobs. (Most workers employed by European rail systems belong to unions.)

We have fast passenger rail service with Amtrak’s electric Acela trains in the northeast.  But they aren’t high speed by global standards, according to Andy Kunz, USHSRA president and chief executive officer.

“Their average speed on the Northeast Corridor is only about 79 mph, whereas true high speed trains all operate at 186 mph and faster,” he explained. “While the Acela is an exceptional rail service, and far better than flying or driving, it’s not even close to the world’s high speed systems.”

He proposed that “if the infrastructure was upgraded to top standards, the Acela service would be far, far better and get millions of riders. Trips between D.C. and N.Y. would only take a little over an hour. This would be a total game changer, but big investment is needed to get the infrastructure upgraded to those levels.”

Only two Amtraks pass through Kentucky daily, but 250 miles west of Louisville, our largest city. North- and southbound diesel-powered trains nicknamed the “City of New Orleans” for the famous Illinois Central streamliner, call at Fulton, nearly as far west as the Bluegrass State goes, but in the wee morning hours.

“High speed rail service would be a total game changer for Kentucky, too, connecting to all the big job markets and so many more opportunities–sporting events, cultural events, and so on,” Kunz said.

Around the world, high speed trains are the pride of the countries that operate them. Amtrak does the best it can, though it has never enjoyed the kind of financial support from Congress that rail systems in Japan and western Europe have long received from their governments.

Kunz said besides funding shortfalls, Amtrak faces another big problem: private freight-hauling railroad companies own most of the rails and the right-of-way over which its passenger trains travel. Because freight trains are longer and heavier than passenger trains, they wear out tracks. As a result, passenger trains have to go slower. (Amtrak’s City of New Orleans trains run on Canadian National tracks.) “So it’s hard for [Amtrak] to provide great rail service in that scenario.”

Because of their great speeds, HSR trains run on special tracks without grade crossings and with high fences to keep people and farm animals from getting on the rails. 

It’s time for Congress to turn Amtrak into the world-class, nationwide, high speed rail system it could be. It’s time for visitors from other countries to be able to go home amazed by speedy, comfortable trains with the “Made in the USA” union label on them–trains operated and maintained by skilled union men and women.

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